How do you solve a problem like Miss Julie, the aristocratic antiheroine of August Strindberg’s 1888 drama who is strong-willed and imperious to her social inferiors even as she is drawn into a torrid affair with one of her father’s servants? A play that was once too raw and provocative to stage can now seem like quaint melodrama, as it did in a Broadway revival a decade ago starring Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller.
But around the time of that production, the Johannesburg-born director and playwright Yaël Farber came up with an ingenious solution — to reset the play in modern-day South Africa, where the clash of historic white privilege and newly liberated black recrimination add exciting new elements to the story.
“Mies Julie,” which opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company (in repertory with Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death”), makes a strong case for Strindberg’s enduring relevance — despite a tragically uneven production under Shariffa Ali’s direction.
The imbalance stems not just from the two mismatched lovers — the haughty Boer heiress Julie (Elise Kibler) and John, the black family servant with whom she’s grown up on her family’s Karoo plantation estate (James Udom). It also comes from the two stars themselves: Kibler seems ill at ease, like a little girl trying on her mother’s clothes, and her accent wanders the globe, sometimes within the same line; Udom, meanwhile, delivers a more confident performance that is both physical and vulnerable, though he can transition between subservient and dominant too abruptly.
Indeed, one shortcoming of Farber’s 75-minute, intermissionless staging is that doesn’t allow either the cast or theatergoers a break to absorb the shifting power dynamics between the central couple — particularly after their decidedly raw hook-up on the kitchen table.
Still, Farber’s transformation of Christine from Jean’s fellow kitchen worker and fiancée into the ambitious young man’s mother is ingenious. We first meet this matriarchal figure before the action even begins, scrubbing the tiled kitchen floor. And as played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes with forthright gravitas, Christine helps to anchor the proceedings by making her family’s history on this land palpable.
Palpable too is another Farber addition to the text: an ancestral ghost (Vinie Burrows) who occasionally wanders the grounds to embody the country’s sad legacy of apartheid. Julie’s Boer family may have cultivated the land for generations, but there are older claimants, and John now has both a spiritual and flesh-and-blood reason for his reluctance to just take flight.
Farber can be a little obvious in drawing political lessons here. “You think my body is your restitution?” Julie tells John after their one-night stand. “My womb, your land grab?”
But her approach breathes new life into a story whose conflicts and power dynamics can seem anachronistic and even dated. It’s just a shame that this wobbly production exacerbates some of its shortcomings.